Aidan Smith: Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United tenure

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley isn't afraid to mingle with the fans on occasion. Picture: Getty
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley isn't afraid to mingle with the fans on occasion. Picture: Getty
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WHEN fans of Rangers and Newcastle United biffed each other’s heads 45 years ago, resulting in 100 injuries, scores of arrests, a hold-up to the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tie at St James’ Park and rioting in the streets through the night, the two clubs cannot have imagined they would one day be conjoined like this.

One operates in splendid isolation in a single-team northern city and the other likes to think it operates in splendid isolation in a single-team northern city, although operating in any meaningful form has been tricky for Rangers for some time now, so welcome, if you will, Mike Ashley.

If they can let bygones be bygones for what happened in May 1969, the fans or their successors in the stands could usefully swap information, share ideas and lean on each other for mutual support in this dark and strange joint chapter in their favourites’ respective histories.

Rangers fans, obviously, have most to learn. But since the Magpies won that Euro semi-final and went on to lift the cup, maybe they will be magnanimous about telling their new cousins north of the Border what living with Ashley has been like these past seven years.

Around Govan, the faithful will have some preconceptions. They will think back to possibly the first time Ashley came to the attention of a Scottish football audience, when the TV cameras at St James’ strayed to the cheap – or cheapish – seats where a fat man in a black-and-white striped shirt was sitting with other rotund types in club colours, drinking in the football.

What did those of us on the outside think of Ashley’s lager-lad, one-of-the-lads, if-not-quite-a-bonnie-lad image? Well, it was maybe a bit contrived given he is a southerner and not a Geordie, but he seemed to be into it: the beer, the pies, the fan experience. At least he wasn’t stuck in the directors’ box, all remote in a suit. And, another blessing: he wasn’t going the whole Newcastle hog and turning up half-dressed. That belly of his had no right to be flaunted.

Newcastle careered about in those early years, getting themselves relegated in 2009, but no surprise there. This was what Newcastle, to our eyes, always did. Following them was the proverbial rollercoaster ride. And after the latest plummet came an upwards surge.

Ashley hired Alan Pardew, reckoned by many to be one of the best English coaches around. All sorts of exotic footballers started arriving off the regular Marseilles-Newcastle flight. Only subscribers to World Soccer might have heard of them but they quickly proved great purchases. The club had tapped into the talent of Ligue 1, generally ignored by the rest of England’s Premier League. Relatively speaking these guys were cheap and so had terrific resale value. Ashley heartily approved and sank a few more beers as the team – for about the 1,462nd time in their history – threatened to do something, maybe even win something.

Ashley would have liked nothing better than a triumphant trip to Wembley. For one thing he wouldn’t have to charter his own plane from his home in London’s billionaire strip of Totteridge Lane. But the day in the sun has never come. What football dreams he possessed were never allowed to override the cold-eyed, take-no-prisoners business ruthlessness. He is a titan of high-street sportswear with a personal fortune estimated at almost 
£4 billion. He specialises in swooping on “distressed brands”. Cruelly – but, hey, business is business – you could apply this description to Andy Carroll. When Ashley had the chance to secure a whopping fee for ye olde medieval battering-ram striker he didn’t hesitate. That £35 million wasn’t reinvested in the team, and Ashley then seemed to get bored with Newcastle.

Not bored with football, though, if he is taking over Rangers, another distressed brand if ever there was one? Well, he sees significant opportunities for Sports Direct so there’s an ulterior motive. The fallen Glasgow giants still boast a global reach. Ashley already had control of Rangers’ retail division, his speciality from having built his pile-’em-high empire. He already owned naming rights for Ibrox, a £1 purchase entitled him to re-christen the ground the Sports Direct Arena.

The light-blue denizens will be aware he has tried this stunt before. Re-naming of Newcastle’s grand old stadium prompted questions in the House of Commons, and even though the old title was clunkily tacked on the end there were angry fan protests. The issue was resolved when the team’s shirt sponsors preserved the St James’ identity, but by then the black-and-white hordes didn’t feel much like supping with their benefactor any more.

The current madness of Newcastle under Ashley – different from earlier manifestations, much, much crazier – will be of serious concern to the Copland Road cognoscenti. There was the tycoon’s appointment of Joe Kinnear as director of football and the latter’s foul-mouthed outbursts. There were Pardew’s blow-outs, the abusing of other managers, the headbutting of a rival player. There was the banning of local newspapers critical of Ashley’s reign, still ongoing. And all the time that top French talent continued to be flogged.

What are Rangers getting? Scan the business-page profiles and you will find scary tales of corporate knifings. The mansion always gets mentioned with its 33 rooms and at Christmas-time a fairy-light phantasmagoria which might well be viewable from outer space. So, a businessman who revels in bad taste and stomps all over emblematic stores such as Lillywhites in London’s Piccadilly?

Well, you will also find the testimonies of those who admire him for being “one of the most focused, relentlessly hard-working and intelligent retailers in the country”. He operates the most generous employee shares bonus scheme on the stock market. And he is now back with his wife after a divorce which cost him £50m.

With his family intact again and the opposition obliterated, city observers reckon he is a more content character. Softer? That’s as maybe. The other week, just when it seemed that the emperor from his high vantage point might point his thumb downwards to signify the chop for Pardew, there was a stay of execution. But he doesn’t care what the punters think of him. Most want him out, though he won’t quit Newcastle until the summer of 2016 at the earliest.

Conspiracy theorists like this date. That is the earliest possible moment when Rangers could return to Europe. What will Rangers look like by then? What will Ibrox look like and how much Sports Direct signage will be draped across the Big Hoose like so much festive illumination at the new owner’s sizeable pad? Until he speaks we don’t know. But don’t hold your breath because he rarely talks. We must resort to poring over remarks overheard, like this one: “I don’t do risk any more”.

Is that good for Rangers? Good that he respects the club as a great Scottish institution and will give that respect right back? You’ve got to hope so. You’ve got to hope, too, that he won’t be buying an XXXL Rangers shirt from one of his own outlets to introduce himself to a support driven to despair who won’t suffer fools. That said, he may not be a football man the way they’d like him to be, but right now these types are thin on the ground and they’ll have to take what they get.